After months running the big main rivers like the Bitterroot, Big Hole, and the Mo, I’ve been itching to get out into the great wild country of Montana’s national forests and wildernesses to get back to the simple parts of life. With a few days off from guiding, the wife and I loaded up the camper and the kid and off we flew to find some solitude and scenery. The good thing about this state is one never has to look too far to find an untrampled view and clean mountain air.
Being someone else’s secret spot, I won’t disclose our fishing location, but really spots like this are frequent in this country. Take the pavement until it turns to gravel, then another ten or so miles of bumps and washboards, and pretty soon you are fast approaching the base of some killer country wherever you are in Montana. Another bit of sweating up the trail and that’s all it takes to be on some prime fishing with the place all to yourself, not to mention the huckleberry bushes loaded to the gills everywhere you look.
So after a few days of gritting it out in our 22″ camper, sounds rough eh?, we were tickled to pull back into civilization and grab a burger and beer at the first place we passed. Another few hours and the family and I arrived home with an entirely new look on life, happy to have the little things like showers and cell service: OK maybe not the cell service, but it does have its strong points. So if you’re tired of seeing the same old stretch of river day after day, just lace up those beat up Vasques and hit the mountains for your own personal trout stream.
I’ve never been to the Rangers AC in Milltown, New Jersey, but if they have remotely as much fun at their club as they have on the river, sign me up. These fine gents have fished with Bitterroot River Guides for many years now, bringing different faces and personalities but one remains the same, Musty. And Ernie, can’t forget him. Big Musty anchors these guys into some semblance of order; arranging the guiding, hotels, and travel plans. I think some of them would still be sitting in the Sawmill bar in Darby without him.
Fishing-wise this was a banner year with the Rangers. We spent three days on the Bitterroot searching out the finest water our river has to offer right now, as well as teaching these guys some new techniques for sticking big fish. Versatile fishermen, our NJ crew got the job done every day of the trip, whether we were way up the West Fork or down on the lower main river. Water levels are still up and cruising along, making for tricky casts and quick mending, but the big flows also keep the big trout moving around the system and feeding heavily.
Taking time to enjoy the finer points of a Montana summer on the river, our crew grilled out every day for lunch to slow the pace of things and sip a few cold ones. Cocktail hour starts early with these guys, and their fishing actually improves considerably throughout the day: we’re dealing with professionals here! But alas, three days go by too quickly, and we’ve already said our goodbyes. Musty and the gang have moved on to the Madison river, and then on to the mecca of Craig on the big Missouri for a few more days. I hope they stick some great fish on the rest of their journey, and until next time Chris and I will miss the onslaught of the Rangers AC in Montana.
There is some great fishing on the Bitterroot River right now. We’ve been latching into solid cutthroats and a few browns here and there, with the fish still stacked from their Salmon fly binge of the previous month. Drys have been working right out of the gate, with other methods of fly fishing also working just fine, that is if you want to stare at a bobber all day. No thanks. I actually haven’t put a bobber on the line in weeks, keeping with simple one fly riggings that are simple to cast and very effective. Find the right bug, find the right spots on the river, and there are hungry trout ready to be caught!
Last blog I wrote preceded our actual fishing, so I figured I’d wrap up our three day trip with Jack and the guys with one last post. As anticipated, we saw some pretty amazing fishing out there on the Bitterroot river. With Salmonflies still in the picture, our hookups were many and hard pulling, the fish stuffed from the big bugs and at least 20 percent heavier than normal. Soon enough the dry bite came around and we enjoyed consistent action on top for most of the day.
We topped it all off with some fine burger grilling at lunchtime and apple pie and ice cream we managed to keep frozen deep in our coolers. So, good fishing seems pretty much everywhere right now if you know what to look for. I’ll be guiding the Big Hole Monday through Saturday of this week looking for those buttery browns, so tight lines and stay tuned.
Maybe it’s a bit early to write this one, we still have one day left to guide this group, but we’ve had some pretty solid fishing in the two out of three days with these fine natured chaps. As the title of this blog goes, we’re chasing the big bugs on the Bitterroot and having great success at finding them. Our first day found us way up the river system, looking for smaller fast flowing water that is so conducive for salmon flies.
Trying a few anticipated patterns for the day, we laid into quite a few trout right off the bat, letting us know our bug choices were right on the money. No need to change a sure thing, we stuck with pretty much one setup throughout the day and put the hammer down on many gluttonous fish, their bellies gorged from all the bugs they’re inhaling. There is nothing like fishing size four dries in heavy water with fish leaping to take the fly near the overhanging willows.
Today our group toured some lower water just to see what’s up out there and escape the salmon fly fever. Solid fishermen, these guys are versatile enough to make it work with a variety of rigs, which is what we needed today. With nothing really taking the top spot on rigging, we caught fish on dries, streamers, back drags, swings, and full on bobbered up. After exhausting every conceivable rig, my boat finally said to hell with it, and we dropped “riffle bombs”, Jack’s terminology for a heavy stonefly nymph and worm. And guess what, it worked like a charm!
Tomorrow is our last day with this great bunch of guys; hopefully we can show them some fine fishing. Our plans for the third day have altered a bit from the original: instead of heading even lower down the system, we’re thinking that first day up river maybe wasn’t such a bad idea after all. Not wanting to jinx the fish karma, we’ve settled on an original float a little in between the other two days’ floats, and with some fine casts and blood, sweat, and tears on the oars I think we’ll see some amazing fishing in the morning.
The time is a’coming around again: Salmonflies on the rivers and the fish are looking up! We’ve been dragging nymphs and buggers for an eternity it seems; Skwala season is long behind us along with the gentle stream flows that occur that time of year. The rivers are ripping along at a good spring clip and the water is perfect for the almighty giant of the summer’s bugs. Get ready folks, this could be one hell of a year out there for the Salmonfly!
This weekend found me on the Big Hole running a guided float with long time brethren: many years we’ve spent chasing brown trout together on that river. My troops fished very well, a bit out of control at times chucking one last shot in the willows, but hey, it’s that time of year and one must pay to play. Good casts and drifts brought up solid fish to the fly, not all day, but enough to keep us interested while the action ebbed and flowed throughout the float. Eventually the fishing got downright smoking hot, with big browns chomping hard in all the right spots. Make your cast and mend equals fish on!
Our second day of fishing took us intentionally far far away from the Salmon fly madness on the popular water. Day one was too good to try and replicate, so our group toured seldom fished haunts deep in the lower river valley. Always beautiful scenery but a roll of the dice on the fishing, we threw the book at ’em while taking in the solitude and challenge of the lower river. We found the right setup eventually, and continued to lay into a great day of fishing with the river all to ourselves. So here’s a big thanks to this group from Seattle: seven years now I’ve had the pleasure of guiding them through the Complete Fly Fisher in Wise River. See you next time fellas!
Big water is all around Southwestern Montana at the moment, especially the Bitterroot. Until things settle down a bit, why not still enjoy the river in a safe and leisurely fashion with a beautiful Bitterroot scenic float? This scenic trip, though, had me a bit on edge since the Root was actually a foot above flood stage at 9000 CFS; did I mention that?
Well, after thoroughly informing my floaters what was happening out there, they decided what the hell, let’s do this! I am an expert oarsman, but not an idiot, so my faithful guide Chris and I hauled the boat up to Hannon and set out to scout the rampaging river for the next fifteen miles. What we saw out there was one of the coolest experiences I’ve witnessed: the river could have floated a battleship out there, let alone my little 13 foot NRS. We found we could go anywhere in the entire river bottom: islands, cottonwood stands, people’s back yards!
Our scenic scout and float the next day were a huge success. With life vests fully adorned and safety first in my mind, we ran 23 miles of the Bitterroot in about four or five hours. Boulders could be heard tumbling and clunking underneath the boat in the torrent, while my eyes scouted miles ahead for trouble in the form of downed timber and strainers. I don’t recommend the common leisure boater pull this kind of float, but I do trust my abilities and that of my crew to safely navigate our waters and enjoy the resource in all stages of the season.
While the Bitterroot River is up and pretty much unfishable, we took a drive over Lost Trail Pass to search out some fishy water on the upper Big Hole. Unlike many freestone rivers, when the Big Hole is up it remains quite fishable on its upper reaches. With meadows and rolling pine hills surrounding the river for the upper forty miles or so, the runoff comes peacefully down the drainage until the eventual canyons at Wise River and Divide.
Pulling up early in the morning after a dawn departure from the flooded Bitterroot, we were pretty stoked to see the river meandering along just like always. The tea colored waters had risen a foot in the last few days, but we only knew from looking at the USGS hydrograph as the change was almost imperceptible to the eye.
Buggers, streamers, and nymph rigs were the choice of the day; little dry fly activity was expected though March Browns hatched well in the afternoon, bringing up a few little risers. We found good consistent fishing from noon onward, almost entirely on nymphs. The streamer game just never played for us even though we gave it our best for the sixteen miles we floated. Some recent photos have us jonesing for a big brown, and I mean a big boy like the one our Hamilton High School principle just caught. Fish like this one will keep you coming back to the Big Hole.
The river has been looking great, even though the levels are up a bit from normal and we all know what is to come soon with the big snowpack. We ran a lower river float checking channels and different lies in the big water. Streamers did for nothing; we spent the early morning hours stripping, dredging, and mending our bugs for not. Towards early afternoon and the end of our float, we finally bobbered up and immedialtly hooked up. Well, shit. I guess we could have tried that about six hours earlier and our float could have been much more productive. We finished the last bit with the bobs and hooked or landed several more fish in the obvious lies. So until the warmth and the rain get to the river, keep a bobber close at hand.
We checked out the Bitterroot a few days ago just to see. You know, just to see for ourselves what’s happening out there. She was at 3500 at Darby, a pretty fishable level in my opinion, so even though most folks will give you the poo-poo about fishing right now we figured it could be done. While the main stem of the Bitterroot is chugging along, channels like the ones pictured are filled up and looking good.
Well, it pretty much sucked. I did catch a small brown and a squawfish and had another fish chase the streamer, but the Bitterroot was obviously off color and flowing fast. Now if you take a look today at the USGS Streamflow, three days later, things are starting to look pretty good. The river has dropped nicely down to 2900 cfs at Darby, which should clean things up and stabilize the fish. We’ll be checking soon to keep an eye on the fishing before the big water cometh. Gotta go to know.